Monday, December 26, 2011

Tigers cap season with big bowl win

It was a resounding win, even if it came in the rain before a sparse crowd. Missouri’s dominating 41-24 win over North Carolina in the Independence Bowl both capped a late-season turnaround to salvage the season and also gave the Tigers momentum heading into an offseason that will include plenty of SEC-mania and discussions over how the Tigers will fare in their new conference home.

The bowl win was more business-like than exhilarating. The Tigers (8-5) were solid favorites, but unlike their last two bowls, they backed that up with a win. Missouri is a better team, and the Tar Heels (7-6), playing with an interim coach who is about to leave for an assistant job at Ohio State, seemed terrifically bored with the idea of played a glorified scrimmage the day after Christmas before a mostly empty stadium in Shreveport, La.

After a North Carolina touchdown on the opening drive, Missouri buried the Tar Heels with this sequence: Missouri touchdown (7-7), North Carolina punt, Missouri touchdown (14-7), North Carolina punt, Missouri field goal (17-7), North Carolina fumble, Missouri touchdown (24-7), North Carolina interception, Missouri touchdown (31-7). Ballgame.

The story of the day may have been Missouri mascot Truman the Tiger dropping the Independence Bowl trophy on the morning of the game, shattering its crystal top. But it’s also noteworthy that Missouri quarterback James Franklin ran for 142 yards, along with 132 yards passing.

Franklin went 8-5 in his first year as a starter, the same as Chase Daniel and Blaine Gabbert, his quarterback predecessors at Missouri. (Those two had 8-4 regular seasons followed by bowl game losses.) In Year 2 as starters, Daniel went 12-2 and led Missouri to a No. 1 ranking at one point, and Gabbert led the Tigers to a 10-3 mark. It’s maybe unfair to put such expectations on Franklin for next year, especially since the SEC hasn’t released its schedules at the time I write this, but Franklin’s progression is obviously a huge storyline for next year.

As for how Franklin progresses, we’ll see. But his maturation will be key in answering the big question for next year’s Tigers…

Can Missouri win the SEC East Division in its first year in the conference? Georgia is probably the favorite, as the Bulldogs won the East this season and quarterback Aaron Murray said “there’s no chance” he would leave school early to enter the 2012 NFL Draft. There are persisting reports that Missouri will get Georgia in Columbia, to open its SEC schedule, which would help the Tigers immensely.

South Carolina should have another strong defense, and head coach Steve Spurrier is a talented offensive mind who should at least field a respectable offense. Florida and Tennessee struggled with several young offensive players this season, but both are daunting programs if they get rolling. Vanderbilt and Kentucky can’t be viewed as contenders until they actually prove they can be.

The very early answer: Missouri can compete for this division right away. But for now, Tiger fans can simply enjoy the bowl victory and the four straight wins to finish the season, the first time Missouri has done that since 1965.

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